After winning three Championship of America races at last year's Penn Relays, the Tennessee Volunteers returned Thursday to Franklin Field and showed just how loaded they still are.
It didn't seem to matter that they lost ace anchor Sarah Bowman to graduation, or that Chanelle Price, a sophomore with Philadelphia ties who ran on all three winning teams in 2009, is slowly rounding into form after a grueling indoor season.
No problem. Coach J.J. Clark plugged in all-American Jackie Areson to take Price's place on the team. Following a blistering 800-meter leg from NCAA champion Phoebe Wright, Areson anchored Tennessee to a decisive victory in the distance medley relay.
Running in ideal conditions with a slight breeze, the Vols finished in 10 minutes, 54.65 seconds, ninth-fastest time in carnival history, in taking the distance medley for the third time in the last four years.
Price, a graduate of Easton (Pa.) High School who once trained in Roxborough with the United Stars Track Club, was the only member of Tennessee's 2010 NCAA indoor champion distance medley team who did not run Thursday. But she has run only twice in the outdoor season, both coming two weeks ago.
Clark said he wanted to give Price "a little break" after the indoor season and indicated she would run on the 4x1,500 and 4x800 teams the next two days.
"We tried to figure out what was best for the team," he said. "Jackie Areson is capable of doing great things. But you're trying to figure out the best team you can put out there. It's a very tough choice."
The Vols charged into position to win the race thanks to Wright, a former walk-on whose relay work last year at Penn netted her three watches. The senior took the baton virtually even with Oregon but sped through her leg in 2:02.12 and gave Areson a 35-meter lead.
"Last year was super, super special," Wright said. "You can't expect to walk in and win three huge relays with these really great teams out there every year. But with that being said, every time Tennessee steps on the line, regardless of who is on the line with us or what's expected of us, we're going to run to win."
Areson, a junior who has run the year's fastest time by a collegian in the 5,000, broke away from a comeback attempt by Oregon in the first half of her leg and clocked a 1,600-meter split of 4:38.26 to complete the win, crossing the line 60 meters in front of the second-place Ducks.
"This is the first time I've been part of this relay with these girls, so it's really exciting for me," Areson said. "I feel like I'm some sort of freshman in the Penn Relays relay experience."
The Vols were led off by Brittany Sheffey, who was the anchor of their NCAA indoor triumph but ran 1,200 meters Thursday, followed by 400-meter runner Ellen Wortham.
"There were a lot of good teams out there," Clark said. "On any given day, any team could win. But coming here without Sarah Bowman and Chanelle Price not being the mix and being able to dominate was a good sign. They all had good efforts."
Villanova finished third in the race in 11:07.42 despite a strong opening leg from Nicole Schappert, who was only 1.5 seconds behind the leader at the first handoff. But by the time the baton got to anchor Sheila Reid, the Wildcats were well behind.
"If you line them up fresh, I think [Reid] is the best," 'Nova coach Gina Procaccio said. "But you can't give her the baton 10 seconds behind. I was disappointed not to be in the race, but there's another race tomorrow."
The women of Texas A&M, who won the 4x100 and 4x200 here last year, posted a best time of 43.13 seconds in the 4x100 heats. The Aggies also qualified in the 4x400 with a clocking of 3:33.06, the second-fastest time.
In fact, four other teams - LSU, Oregon, Auburn, and University Tech of Jamaica - joined Texas A&M in advancing to the final of the 4x100 and 4x400. University Tech had the best time in the 4x400, 3:32.81.
Miami junior Tameka Jameson took the day's first event, the women's 400-meter hurdles, in 57.57.